True to her profession, Rachel Morrison, the first woman ever nominated for an Oscar in the best cinematography category, is trying to keep her focus on the big picture.
“I initially didn’t want to win,” she told CNN via phone, only a few days before she will find out if her historic nomination for her work on “Mudbound” results in a historic win. “I was very determined to campaign for [fellow nominee] Deakins.”
Roger A. Deakins, who received an Oscar nomination for his work on “Blade Runner 2049,” is Morrison’s competition in the category.
A fan of his work, Morrison said she was happy to put her weight behind a 14-time Oscar nominee vying for his first win. Plus, if she didn’t win, she wouldn’t have to deliver a speech. Morrison is “incredibly scared of public speaking.”
But in the weeks since her name was read alongside some of her heroes, she’s come to see her own nomination with new eyes.
“I have realized how inspirational this visibility has been to so many women,” she said.
She continued, “Sure, there’s the historical significance of it all, but just seeing me get the accolades that have been [denied so many women in the past] has really been the light at the end of the tunnel for so many women and the encouragement they needed to keep shooting.”
That means everything to her.
Whereas she was initially “resolute in not wanting to win,” now, she sees “the good in it.”
There wasn’t a specific comment that helped her arrive at this. Rather, she said it was a collection of moments.
It was her fellow members of the American Society of Cinematographers, who brought their daughters and mentees to see her speak. It was the women who’ve approached her with stories about how her success has given them “the strength to keep going.” It was an older female member of the ASC who came up to Morrison and said, “You don’t know how long I’ve been waiting to see this.”
“You think of the old guard as sort of the ones keeping women from acceleration and instead it’s the old guard saying, ‘Thank God; we’ve been waiting for you,’” Morrison said.
Morrison had never had much desire for accolades. She’s always just wanted the ability to work and create.
The Cambridge, Massachusetts-native developed her love for cinematography almost by accident. Her passion for photography evolved during her high school years, when she realized there was a job where she could, essentially, shoot 24 still photographs in one second.
She became “fascinated and hooked” on cinematography.
A double major in photography and film at New York University and a few bill-paying, post-grad jobs later (one of her early credits includes MTV reality show “The Hills”), Morrison had her big breakthrough working on “Fruitvale Station.”
The critically hailed film from director Ryan Coogler, with whom she’d team up again years later for “Black Panther,” gave her new clout in Hollywood. Suddenly, she had options.
“I’ve always looked for projects that have some messaging behind them and felt timely or relevant and important in some way and spoke to some of the injustices that are occurring in our world,” she said.
“Mudbound” was all of that and then some.
Set in the rural American South during World War II, the gripping drama “felt like a total reflection of what we’re going through – in terms of both gender and racial inequity,” said Morrison, who read the piece before the election of President Donald Trump.
“I think I thought it was more timeless than timely,” she said. “Now, I’ve had the rude awakening that it’s just as relevant today.”
“Mudbound” missed out on a best picture Oscar nomination – much to the dismay of Morrison who sings the praises of director Dee Rees – but it earned four nominations total.
Morrison and Deakins are joined in the best cinematography category by Hoyte van Hoytema (“Dunkirk”), Bruno Delbonnel (“Darkest Hour”) and Dan Laustsen ("The Shape of Water”).
There is a chance Morrison will have to face her fear and give a speech on Sunday night. If she does, she knows it will at least be for a greater good.
“That visibility might keep thousands of women in the game who otherwise would have at some point jumped ship,” she said. “That’s what it means to me, really.”